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Masters of Their Craft: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum


Masters of Their Craft: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum features 50 works of art that illuminate the vast creative spirit that is a hallmark of contemporary crafts. Marked by the diversity of artistic expression and approaches to materials, these works of art testify to a renaissance in American studio crafts. Crafts emphasize materiality - clay, glass, fiber, wood, metal - and the technical means by which the properties of these materials are manipulated. Imaginative conceptions and technical mastery combine in dazzling works by "masters of the medium" such as Dale Chihuly, Albert Paley, Peter Voulkos, Beatrice Wood, and Betty Woodman. They are complemented by Richard Marquis, Judy McKie, Richard Mawdsley, Wayne Higby, and John McQueen, among many more. This exhibition will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art from through November 2, 2003.

"These are among the very finest American studio crafts, displaying virtuoso technique and a creative approach to materials. Best of all, they appeal to every one of us through their reference to traditional functional objects," said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"The works of art shown in Masters of Their Craft can be enjoyed on several levels, from the purely visual to the tactile relationships of things we take for granted in our daily lives," said Kenneth Trapp, curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "A common thread in craft is the ritualized object-works that suggest application to a codified ritual but are in themselves no part of an accepted ritual."

The contemporary crafts movement is a fairly recent phenomenon, although the origins of the art can be traced to prehistoric time. Evolving from ancient workshops, medieval guild trades, and the Industrial Revolution, which gave rise to the very industries associated with crafts today, studio crafts often pay homage to function at the same time that they discard utility as a concern. For example, Michelle Holzapfel's turned wooden Bound Vase (1989) of cherry burl cannot hold anything in its interior, and the exterior is carved to look like cloth. As one of the few women to have achieved success in the male-dominated field of wood turning, her art often refers to the domestic lives of women. The basic components of this object, a vase and a cloth wrap, imply that in our culture beauty and ornamentation often are associated with women.

Dale Chihuly demonstrates how contemporary crafts artisans look at past techniques and make them modern by paying tribute to the glass-making traditions practiced in Venice since the 14th century. A vessel, Cobalt and Gold Leaf Venetian (1993) is an intense cobalt blue glass, which when lighted, glows with life. Adding to the brilliance of the piece is the gold leaf-concentrated in some areas to suggest pollen floating on water. The object is unabashedly excessive in its exuberant decorativeness.

Like Chihuly, Betty Woodman draws from the past as well as from other cultures for inspiration. Kimono Vases: Evening (1990) are earthenware works exploring the progression of sunlight. One side is glazed with dark colors reminiscent of night, and the other side has pastel hues evoking dusk or dawn. The artist energizes the two vases by applying forms that evoke flowing kimono sleeves. These vases show her use of Italian majolica painting and Japanese costume and textile traditions.

Mary Adams's masterpiece, Wedding Cake Basket (1986), weaves the western European ritual of the wedding cake with splint basket making practiced by the Iroquoian peoples since the late 18th century. It is composed of four layers that rise in a conical pyramid ending in a bell-shaped top crowned by arches that support two bells. With its prominent spiral projections, the surface texture of Wedding Cake Basket suggests the luscious cream frosting covering the most elaborate ceremonial wedding confections.

Kent Raible's work suggests a court tradition of jewelry that flourished when royal families patronized particular jewelry makers. Floating City (1996) is a fantasy constructed of gold, chrome, and gemstones such as diamonds, sapphires, and amethysts. When Raible conceived of the pendant, he had in mind the lost city of Atlantis. The miniature city resembles a spaceship in a science-fiction film. The extended blue chalcedony, for example, looks as if it might begin to glow at any moment, a force for good.

To accompany the exhibition, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is publishing an illustrated souvenir book, Masters of Their Craft: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum .

Masters of Their Craft: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of five exhibitions featuring the Smithsonian Museum's collections, touring the nation through 2005. The tour is supported in part by the Smithsonian Special Exhibitions Fund.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation's museum dedicated exclusively to the art and artists of the United States. The museum's collections trace the country's story in art spanning three centuries, and its in-depth resources offer opportunities to understand that story better. While the museum renovates its historic building in Washington, D.C., it is sharing many of its finest treasures with museums and audiences nationwide. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the first federal art collection, begun in 1829 with gifts from private collections and art organizations established in the nation's capital before the founding of the Smithsonian in 1846. The museum has grown steadily to become a center for the study, enjoyment and preservation of America's cultural heritage. Today, it houses the world's most important American art collection, with approximately 40,000 works of art in all media.


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